He drew close to me carefully. Quietly he asked about my disability. His tone, serious, his manner, respectful. I knew that a conversation was coming so I took his questions seriously. I answered honestly and in plain language. He wanted to know what my disability meant to me. I told him that I still did almost every thing I did before. That my disability did mean something, but not as much as I thought it did at first, and no where near as much as others think it does.
He said, 'I've got it a little bit,' his finger tapping the side of his forehead. I have always believed that it's important to have the words to describe difference, to use the words that describe difference and to have the courage to use those words to own the difference. So I said, 'You have a little bit of disability.' He said, voice shaking a bit, breathing like this was hard work for him, 'Yes, I have.' It was like he had 'come out' to me as a disabled man. Like he had revealed to me, but mostly to himself that, yes, indeed, he was different.
I asked, 'But that little bit makes a difference doesn't it?'
He said, 'Yes, it does.'
I asked, 'What difference does it make?'
He said, 'I'm not so good at reading and not so good at math.'
There, it was out. All out. There was a pause. Sometimes knowing when to be quiet is the most important social skill there can be ... sometimes I have it. I let the pause go on. Then he said, 'So what do you think of that?' He wasn't even looking at me. Couldn't even look at me. His shame made the air smell of mildewed expectations.
I said, 'I think that's a very short list.'
Again there was a pause. Again, I waited.
He sat up a bit, 'It is, it is a very short list.'
We talked then about having to face both disability and prejudice, other people's low expectations, other people's disbelief in our personal competence, other people's attitudes about our right to fully participate. Yes, disability does mean something, not as much as we think it does for us personally but more than we think it will to others at large.
It was time to go, he shook my hand as he left, said his name again - as if I'd forget - and said, 'I'm the one with the short list.'